Yukon Northern Lights – The 5 W’s

The Canadian Yukon is one of the best places on the planet to view the bright dancing lights of the aurora borealis, which are also known as the northern lights. Mid-August through mid-April is prime time for the Yukon northern lights. Here’s what you need to know to see and photograph this incredible phenomenon on a trip-of-a-lifetime. 

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Related: Check out our story about a White Pass Railroad train adventure from Carcross, Yukon.

An image of a person in a red jacket watching the northern lights in the Yukon.
Watching the Yukon northern lights dance across the sky is a mesmerizing experience. Photo by Greg Olsen.

Who Created the Legends?

You could say the Yukon northern lights are legendary. There are many legends about the aurora borealis and what causes it. According to Chinese legend, the lights are a result of a celestial battle between good and evil dragons breathing fire across the sky. Inuit legend has it that the dancing lights are really the spirits of ancestors playing soccer with the skull of a walrus. Thus the Inuit name for the northern lights means “soccer trails.” Some Canadian First Nations groups believe the northern lights are really spirits of ancestors celebrating life. Others believe the trails across the sky create a pathway for spirits to follow to reach the next life.

An image of the aurora borealis taken in Dawson City Yukon in August.
The season for viewing the aurora borealis in the Yukon runs from mid-August to mid-April. This image was captured in Dawson City in August. Photo by Debbie Olsen.

What is the Aurora Borealis?

Science has revealed that an aurora is caused when charged particles from the sun become trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field. This happens most often near the Earth’s magnetic poles. The phenomenon is called aurora borealis at the North Pole and aurora australis at the South Pole. Yukon northern lights are caused by the aurora borealis. The name “northern lights” and “aurora borealis” can be used interchangeably. The extreme northern latitude and low light pollution of the Yukon makes it an ideal destination for aurora viewing.

An image of the northern lights in the sky near Whitehorse, Yukon.
On a good night, the lights of an aurora can fill the entire sky. This photo was captured outside Whitehorse, Yukon. Photo by Greg Olsen.

Where to Find the Yukon Northern Lights

The Yukon northern lights can be seen throughout the territory, but there are some spots that are particularly good. In Dawson City, head to the Midnight Dome – a lookout high above the city. Any local can give you directions. In Whitehorse, take a drive towards Fish Lake or Chadburn Lake Road. If you want to be really creative, watch the aurora while relaxing in the warm waters of the Takhini Hot Pools outside Whitehorse. You can also board a charter flight and fly directly into the aurora. My husband and I spent a night in a glass chalet watching the northern lights from the comfort of our bed. Several tour operators offer aurora viewing tours outside of Whitehorse. We experienced one outside Whitehorse with Arctic Range Adventures.

An image of the northern lights near Dawson City, Yukon in August.
An aurora shot is more interesting if you can put something in the foreground. Photo by Debbie Olsen.

When to See the Yukon Northern Lights

The northern lights are visible in the Yukon from mid-August to mid-April, but the best viewing typically occurs during the first few weeks of winter. You need dark clear skies in order to view an aurora. The magic window for aurora viewing in the Yukon is typically between 10 pm and 3 am.

An image of a red and green aurora near Dawson City, Yukon in August.
Most auroras are green, but occasionally you will see a red aurora. This image was taken outside Dawson City, Yukon in summer and I’m not sure if the red is the aurora or a remnant of the sunset. Photo by Debbie Olsen.

Why You Should see the Yukon Northern Lights

The Yukon northern lights are magical. It’s as simple as that.

An image of two people standing in front of the Yukon northern lights outside Whitehorse in January.
Viewing the Yukon northern lights is a trip of a lifetime. This image was taken outside Whitehorse in January.

How to Photograph an Aurora

It takes patience and skill to capture an aurora shot that pops. You also need to have some essential equipment. You need a a camera with a manual setting, a tripod, a wide-angle lens and extra camera batteries. A red light headlamp that has a dimming feature can also be helpful when you are setting up. A wireless camera remote can help to avoid the blurring caused by camera shake. Here are the basics:  

  • Turn off the flash and set the camera and the lens to manual.
  • Set the F-stop on the lowest number you can.
  • Set the ISO to 1600 (as a starting point)
  • Set the shutter speed to 20 seconds (as a starting point)
  • Put your camera on the tripod. 
  • Focus the lens – set it to infinity and manually focus on the brightest star you can see. 
  • Take test shots and adjust the shutter speed and ISO until you get clear shots of the night sky. Wait for the aurora and adjust your settings again as necessary.

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